The no-fighting guide to disciplining your kids
In most challenging parenting situations, our initial response to the challenges we face is often the wrong one, says parenting psychologist and father of five, Justin Coulson. While our automatic fight or flight reactions to difficulty, threat, or challenge may work well when facing a speeding car or an unwanted intruder, when dealing with the fragile emotions of those people we value the most, fight and flight can be destructive. Instead, Coulson suggests there are alternative ways of dealing with difficulty.
Natural reactions can ruin relationships
Our natural reactions can make us enemies to our children. When your child challenges you with a "No!", it’s natural to respond with a more powerful "YES, and you WILL do it NOW!" While such a response may be justified and your request perfectly reasonable, this kind of reaction can become pervasive and damage not only the relationship with our kids but our ability to influence them also.
Similarly, using our power physically is an all-too-natural quick response - standing over our children, threatening them physically, or even pushing, squeezing, shaking, or hitting them can seem like the only option when we are exhausted and pushed to the limit. Yet it is universally acknowledged that this is also harmful to happy family relationships.
If our natural reactions and responses to the difficulties we face are so destructive, what should parents do in challenging circumstances? There are many alternative ways of dealing with difficulty. Here are three suggestions.
1. Choose your battles
Many power struggles with our children relate less to principles and more to preference. When dealing with matters of principle (such as honesty, kindness, and so on) we should be firm. But when dealing with matters of taste, we should be tolerant. There is no right and wrong. We may not like the clothing, or the music, that our child wishes to listen to. But if it is simply a matter of preference and our family principles and values are not being violated, then, as hard as it may be, it is better for our relationships to defer to our child's preference.
If we think that it is our responsibility to convince our children that we are always right, and if we believe that they will like everything we ask, we are sure to be disappointed. Our children will dissent. They will be frustrated by us - on matters of both principle and preference. But wise parents put these things into perspective, standing firm on the things that really do matter, and allowing tolerance in matters of preference.
2. Choose discipline that teaches
Too many of our disciplinary attempts fail to teach the things that our children need to learn. Punitive discipline turns our hearts against our children, and turns our children against us. Smacking, threatening, time-out, coercing, yelling, and so on, teaches our children aggression, loneliness, and that power gets things done. Lecturing, ignoring, or neglecting turns our children away from us.
Discipline that turns our children towards us is generally provided by thoughtful teaching. Recently my 11 year-old (Chanel) was disrespectful to Kylie, my wife and her mother. I was filled with anger. My initial reaction was to scream at her, smack her, and send her to her room forever! So I gave myself a small time-out. Once I had settled down I went to Chanel. She was humble (and probably afraid for her life). I asked her questions, calmly, slowly, and allowing a lot of time for Chanel to formulate answers. How did such behaviour feel to her? To her mum? How did it affect our family? I also asked questions to understand the context of her behaviour. And together we developed solutions. We revisited the issue the following morning, and have monitored the situation consistently since.
Such an approach is not 'natural' or easy. But discipline is instilled. Our children can be taught, often by themselves. We can facilitate their learning by asking them questions (not interrogating them) and teaching them rather than preaching at them. And... we model effective strategies for dealing with conflict.
3. Show compassion
When our children do something 'wrong' (that is, they violate a principle rather than express a preference we are struggling to tolerate), our initial response almost never includes compassion. We are angry, and feel justified in our anger.
Responding with compassion seems counter-intuitive. But when we look at the world from our child's point of view, we will usually find that she is not as crazy, ignorant, or disrespectful as we had thought.
On a regular basis our children encounter challenges in their own lives. They are often confused, disoriented, lonely, upset, afraid, or perhaps even just plain egocentric. When we see and understand what life is like for them in that moment we contextualise their behaviour, and begin to understand it. We no longer see it as an isolated behavioural event that has inconvenienced us. That's the natural response. Instead we see our child's behaviour as the outcome of a series of challenges that lead to the child pleading for some kind of attention, or to satisfy his or her needs.
Our child may be unsettled at school, have just had an altercation with a friend, may not know how to do something, or may simply not have the developed pre-requisite skills for dealing with a given issue.
Approaching challenging relationships
Approaching challenging relationship situations with an understanding of what matters helps us choose our battles. When we emphasise teaching over punishment we go against our natural instincts and preserve our relationships. And the use of compassion almost guarantees that our natural reactions will not get in the way of our relationship with our child, enabling us to see things from their perspective and work with them through the challenges we face.
Find more articles by Justin Coulson:
- The trouble with time-out
- Dealing with sensitive children
- How to be a happy parent
- Why parents should stop doing so much for their children